Day 3: Friday, September 27
Route: Winona, MN to La Crosse, WI
Distance: 335 miles
Whereas the Best Western in Manitowoc had built up my hopes with the offer of a “FREE HOT BREAKFAST,” the AmericInn here in Winona makes no such pretense. It’s a continental breakfast, with the usual fare: cereal, yogurt, coffee, toast. ‘S alright.
The effects of the Lake Express engine failure are still rippling forward through time. Having cut yesterday’s route short, I now add
a detour to today’s route by heading up WI35 – part of The Great River Road
– to catch some roadside attractions I had missed. The road provides a nice relaxing cruise with wide shoulder margins, gentle sweepers, and beautiful view of the bluffs to the east and the river to the west. After fifteen minutes I squiggle through the neighborhoods of Buffalo City to find this:
Although the area appears to be a residential neighborhood, this immense Norseman is in fact standing in the yard of the aptly named Viking Hotel. The hotel owners also had a carpet business (called “Viking Carpets”)
, and when that closed, they figured the statue would be a fine addition for their riverfront hotel. Note that his feet are encased in a block of concrete, a measure intended to prevent theft. I had no idea statue-napping was such a rampant problem.
Backtracking just a few miles puts me at the Prairie Moon Folk Art site:
Like the Wegner Grotto, it’s a fine example of ”dementia concretia.”
In this case, the industrious creator was a farmer named Herman Rusch, whose epic artistic productivity began when he retired in 1952 and ended with his death in 1985 at the ripe old age of 100. In the midst of his labors, he had the foresight to create a self-portrait so we wouldn’t forget what he looks like:
For the record, Mr. Rusch did not have two heads; I will leave it as an exercise for you to figure out which is his and which is mine.
A few more samples of Mr. Rusch’s oeuvre:
The bear’s “fur” is composed of dark pumice stones.
A dinosaur, a motorcyclist, and a polar bear, the latter about to partake of a seal:
A snake, a crown-thingie, and a couple more dinosaurs (man, this guy really liked dinosaurs)
Moving on from Prairie moon, Fountain City is just a few miles south. There’s not much here. There can’t be, as it’s wedged tightly between the bluffs and the river. The bluffs, while very scenic, aren’t always very accommodating. Back in 1995 a large and particularly disgruntled chunk of bluff decided to pay an unannounced visit to one of the town’s residents. You may have heard of The House On The Rock,
but I’ll bet you haven’t heard of The Rock In The House:
It’s things like this that remind me to appreciate the fact that I live on high ground.
Finally back near Winona, my day’s original route begins as I turn away from the river and squiggle up onto the top of the bluffs. It’s a blur of ups and downs and lefts and rights after that; I doubt I could follow it without the nice British lady in my GPS receiver barking directions into my ear every few seconds. She doesn’t say anything about the cows though, so I have to make my own decisions about when to stop for a closer look. Soon enough I whiz past some fine candidates, prompting me to turn around and make a slow approach with the engine off, lest I startle them. Cows spook easily, but they’re intensely curious, so even if you accidentally run them off, they’ll be back in fairly short order.
Nonetheless, I do my best to be quiet and slow as I dismount and snap a group photo:
I’m not sure if they’re posing for me or just ogling the bike. Maybe they’re used to Harleys roaring by, and they like what they see here…
Eh, in yer face, Bossie:
OK, enough with the cows…
Moving on, just south of Disco (yes, there’s really a town called Disco)
the GPS directs me to make a right turn, but a real-world road sign warns “DEAD END.” This is weird: my GPS clearly shows the road continuing on, so…?
A quarter-mile later, the pavement does indeed come to an end, and I’m faced with the choice of turning back or continuing on down the snowmobile trail that my GPS thinks
is a road.
What’s that expression? “It’s better to regret something you did than something you didn’t do.” Onward.
I mean what the heck, right? It’s an official state-maintained/marked snowmobile trail, so even though it’s dirt, it must be relatively smooth and free of logs and stuff. Turns out it’s not even a gravel
road, it’s soft, sandy dirt, a real handful on the RT:
I’m rolling along at all of five miles per hour, and I can feel the soil constantly shifting under the front wheel. After half a mile, the dirt is replaced with low ground cover:
Believe it or not, this is an improvement. The vegetation helps hold the soil together, making it less squirmy and allowing me to increase my speed up to a whopping ten miles per hour. Whoooo, we’re cookin’ now! After about a mile the GPS shows the next intersection approaching; this has been an interesting sideshow, but I’m ready for pavement again. And then…disaster:
The state of Wisconsin, in its infinite wisdom, made sure to gate one
end of the trail, but not the other. If last week’s coin toss had gone the other way, I would have encountered the gate BEFORE riding the entire length of the trail.
A quick inspection confirms there really is no way I’m getting through. The gate is well-built, securely chained and padlocked, with braces extending far to either side, and not so much as a footpath going around the edge. Ten very slow and tense minutes pass by before I’m finished backtracking to the pavement where all this silliness started, and then I detour a few miles out of my way to reach my route on the other side of that damnable gate.
Upon reaching Melrose, I stop for gas, and then eyeball the next portion of my route on the GPS. Galesville is 25 miles away, and I have no idea what they have for restaurants, so I stick with the town diner here in Melrose, the L&M Chuckwagon Café:
Good food, from a restaurant that’s been around longer than just about anything near my home. My waitress tells me that it started out as a movie theatre in 1948 (apparently farmers like to hit the cinema once in a while)
before being converted to a restaurant in 1960. Cool.
My post-lunch riding takes me through Trempealeau, where I receive an inspirational message from Mrs. Sippy:
Thanks Mrs. Sippy, but I already knew that.
At the edge of town I bag my next Roadside-America waypoint, the Trempealeau Catfish:
Catfish are plentiful in the Mississippi; the town has an annual three-day festival dedicated to them with all manner of fun events, including the selection of a “Catfish Queen.” I wonder, does she have to have whiskers?
An hour later I stop for a break in the countryside. Cities and towns are fine – they’ve got gas stations and parks with public restrooms – but shutting down for a few minutes to enjoy the silence and solitude you can only get in the middle of nowhere is priceless:
It occurs to me to catch a short video clip while I’m here. It’s a perfect spot, up high on the capstone (as opposed to the valley)
, with a nice gentle breeze and chirping insects. My video captures all of that,
but still ends up somewhat comical because it’s all upstaged by a big fat Beemer right in the middle of it.
This road is exactly 3.14159 miles long:
Alternative joke: Just what flavor is
the county pie?
My last stop before arriving in La Crosse is at a farm where the owner has given his cow barn a special title:
Finally, I pull into La Crosse, but I’m on the south side, and my motel is on the north side – and it’s rush hour, on a Friday. Not only that, but this is the second day of the local Oktoberfest, which explains why I had such a hard time getting a hotel reservation, and why I’m now having a miserable slog through town.
After a good twenty-minute grind, I check in at my hotel – and head out to see a few sights.
First stop, the City Brewing Company.
This is a sizable beer-brewing operation on the south end of downtown, and their roots are proudly displayed for all to see:
This is King Gambrinus,
the unofficial patron saint of beer and brewing. The plaque on his pedestal
reads: “Gambrinus, whose real name was Jan Primus, was a valiant soldier of the 13th century. This knightly duke was an honorary member of the Brussels Brewers Guild and is generally referred to as the inventor and king of beer.”
Directly across the street is the world’s largest six-pack:
When I was a kid, the brewery was owned by G. Heileman, and these tanks were painted up as a six-pack of Old-Style:
Purists will decry the fact that the La Crosse Lager six pack is nothing more than printed banners draped over the sides of the tanks, whereas the Old-Style six pack was honest-to-God paint
. The times, they are a-changin’, and Roadside America has a worthy rant about ephemeral attractions of this sort.
Like so many other cities up and down the Mississippi, the east side of La Crosse butts up against dolomite bluffs. One of the most prominent is named Granddad Bluff:
Yes, it’s my next stop.
Granddad Bluff has been a city park for over 100 years now, having been saved from the ravages of large-scale quarrying by a wealthy but civic-minded family who bought the land and donated it to the city in 1912. The history of the park and the quarrying business that preceded it is presented on a couple of plaques (here and here)
accessible by visitors walking out to the overlook, and it reminds me of the Ken Burns documentary from last night about the national park system; I’m glad so many people had the foresight to preserve some special patches of land that otherwise would certainly have been torn asunder by business interests or covered with housing developments.
Speaking of the overlook, it’s a good 600 feet above the alluvial plain where La Crosse sits, and it provides beautiful views of the city, the river, and a good chunk of Minnesota on the far side. The late-afternoon sun and the lush greenery below make for a difficult contrast range, and combined with the 180-degree view to the north and south, it’s impossible to capture a photo that renders the scene with any degree of fidelity:
See? I told you.
Still, I want to see the sunset from up here. Just like yesterday, I turn to the GPS for advice. It seems sunset is over an hour away, leaving me plenty of time to visit a couple of other attractions before returning here.
First stop, Riverside Park,
for a snapshot of Hiawatha.
He was a Native American leader of some achievement several centuries ago, but although his name is prominent throughout the region, his statue here in La Crosse falls isn’t exactly the dignified affair one might have expected based on his history:
My other stop before returning to Granddad Bluff? Onalaska, the self-proclaimed sunfish capital of the world:
My guess is Trempealeau claimed the catfish first, and Onalaska got what was left.
Finally it’s almost time for the sunset, so I make my way back up to the top of the bluff.
“…At the twilight’s last gleaming:”
Hard to tell, but that flagpole is 75 feet high. Pretty grand, Dad. It’s the fourth flagpole here since 1941,
with lightning and winds wrecking a couple of its predecessors; evidently Mother Nature doesn’t care for these sorts of things.
With the sun on its way down, the contrast is a little less extreme:(click on image to open a full-size panoramic view in another browser window)
The bluffs in the distance are in on the far side of the Big Muddy, in Minnesota; they’re a good six miles away.
So long, Sól:
My day ends with dinner at the historic Piggy Restaurant;
excellent fare, if you’re ever in the area.